Composition Breakdown

Over the last few years, I have had the privilege of seeing hundreds of student paintings. I put together a list of the most common issues and areas for improvement in terms of composition. You might find it helpful for your own paintings.  Keep in mind, a mistake in one painting might be a success in another. Composition is tricky like that. So, treat these as gentle suggestions rather than strict rules.

Focal Point on the Edge of the Painting 

Your focal point is the key feature or idea of your painting. It should be in a prominent spot, not on the edges.

Aligning Objects

It can look unnatural if the tallest tree in your landscape aligns with the peak of the distant mountain.

Too Much Noise

Don’t try to paint every color, value, texture, highlight, or shadow. Simplify. You’ll end up with a more cohesive painting.


It’s hard to make a composition work if it doesn’t start with some kind of spark or idea.

Horizon Line Right in the Middle

Not a big issue, but you should usually give dominance to the sky or land.

Too Many Straight Lines (Particularly in Landscapes)

Straight lines are rigid and tight. Embrace curves. As Steve Huston wrote in his Figure Drawing for Artists (page 38): "The world is full of watery design lines. Just look around."

Pushing in the Wrong Direction

If you’re going to exaggerate any elements in your painting, it’s better to push in the direction of your big idea. It’s better to make your vivid sunset a bit warmer. It’s better to make your rigid cityscape a bit straighter. It’s better to make your stormy seascape a bit darker and the waves a bit larger.

Unnecessary Objects

If something doesn’t add to the composition, does it need to be there?

Leading Lines Out of the Painting

Lines are powerful. Our eyes like to follow them. Careful not to lead people out of your painting.

Collection of Parts

Your goal is to create a beautiful painting, not a collection of beautifully-painted parts. Focus on the big picture and never lose sight of it.

Lost Opportunities

Look for opportunities to convey your ideas. Grass can be used to convey direction and movement. Hair can be used to frame the face. Highlights can be used to reiterate key structures. Always think about each part's role in the bigger picture. 

-Dan Scott